Why Wikipedia Works


Wikipedia articles also have stringent requirements for what information can be included. The three main tenets are that (1) information on the site be presented in a neutral point of view, (2) be verified by an outside source, and (3) not be based on original research. Each of these can be quibbled with (what does “neutral” mean?), and plenty of questionable statements slip through — but, luckily, you probably know that they’re questionable because of the infamous “[citation needed]” superscript that peppers the website.

Actual misinformation, meanwhile, is dealt with directly. Consider how the editors treat conspiracy theories. “Fringe theories may be mentioned, but only with the weight accorded to them in the reliable sources being cited,” Wikimedia tweeted in an explanatory thread earlier this week. In contrast, platform companies have spent much of the last year talking about maintaining their role as a platform for “all viewpoints,” and through design and presentation, they flatten everything users post to carry the same weight. A documentary on YouTube is presented in the exact same manner as an Infowars video, and until now, YouTube has felt no responsibility to draw distinctions.

But really, I’d argue that Wikipedia’s biggest asset is its willingness as a community and website to “delete.” It’s that simple. If there’s bad information, or info that’s just useless, Wikipedia’s regulatory system has the ability to discard it.

Deleting data is antithetical to data-reliant companies like Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube). This is because they are heavily invested in machine learning, which requires almost incomprehensibly large data sets on which to train programs so that they can eventually operate autonomously. The more pictures of cats there are online, the easier it is to train a computer to recognize a cat. For Facebook and Google, the idea of deleting data is sacrilege. Their solutions to fake news and misinformation has been to throw more data at the problem: third-party fact-checkers and “disputed” flags giving equal weight to every side of a debate that really only has one.